At Large : Slip sliding
English words are slippery tools. When committing oral or written communication, words are indispensable, but they may also be meaningless, misleading, uninspiring, confusing, and clumsy. Used carelessly, words can defeat communication altogether. Strung together without a plan, collections of words that pretend to sentence or paragraph status may ultimately say nothing at all.
For instance, a speaker begins his talk this way: "I would like to say a few words about this or that." I say, if you'd like to, then get to it. You're at the head table. You've been introduced. You're standing behind the microphone. Everyone in the audience is waiting politely, expecting you to say a few words. You don't have to ask for the chance, you don't have to sneak up on it. Just, do it.
You could begin by saying, "This or that means nothing to me, and it should mean nothing to you." That would be the way to start a speech about this or that.
If not, I find myself wondering whether the speaker, having begun by talking about what he would like to say about this and that, and then gone on about what he might say for 20 minutes, sits down without ever having actually said it.
Ditto for thanks. I can't count the number of thank-you letters we've published over 25 years, but most of them have begun, "I (or we) would like to thank so and so for such and such." One never doubts the sincerity of the wish, of course, but thanks are an emollient best applied full strength.
Or, someone begins a letter of condolence: "I would like to offer my condolences ..." Well, do so, I say. The writer has chosen a card, taken up the pen; he is moved by thoughtfulness and concern. So, begin already.
And, when the recipient is done reading what the well-intentioned correspondent has written, does the question linger, "Have I had those condolences that my friend wanted to offer?"
It's a small point, I suppose.
But, speaking of words and their mistreatment, how about unique? There's a word that's been horribly abused. These days things are very unique, pretty unique, really unique, somewhat unique.
H.W. Fowler, the matchless arbiter of English usage, knows what's unique and what's not, and he makes it plain:
"A thing is unique, or not unique; there are no degrees of uniqueness; nothing is ever somewhat or rather unique, though many things are almost or in some respects unique. The word is a member of a depreciating series. Singular had once the strong meaning that unique has still in accurate but not in other writers. In consequence of slovenly use, singular no longer means singular, but merely remarkable; it is worn out; before long rather unique will be familiar; unique, that is, will be worn out in turn, and we shall have to resort to unexampled and keep that clear of qualifications as long as we can.... For the other regrettable use of unique, as when the advertisement columns offer us what they call unique opportunities, it may generally be assumed with safety that they are lying; but lying is not in itself a literary offence, so that with these we have nothing to do."
Don't you love that clarity? Don't you wish that words - and campaign attack ads, for that matter - could be as clear, their factual bases as sturdy as the admirable Fowler requires.
Oh, and amazing. That concert was amazing. That sunset was amazing. That dress you're wearing is amazing. That gazpacho you made is amazing.
The English writer Frederick Forsyth objects: "Time after time I am told that someone has made an amazing attack, an amazing statement, or released amazing figures. Not so. They have actually made an attack, a statement, or released some statistics. If I am going to be amazed, then I shall decide it. I don't need the reporter to tell me to be amazed." Forsyth had obviously been rubbed the wrong way by something he read, but his point holds.
Or, what about incredible, or unbelievable? That key lime pie was incredible. The wedding flowers were unbelievable. What does that mean? Of course, the speaker has a huge smile on her face, and she's waving her arms excitedly and maybe smacking her lips. You suspect the pie was tasty, the flower arrangements charming. But suppose the reporter is mischievous or sly. Maybe the limes were not fresh. Perhaps the flower arrangements had wilted. Perhaps the reporter was disappointed by the poor quality of the desert and the decorations, shocked and unprepared to believe that the hosts were capable of such a social error as to entertain in so flawed a way.
Almost everyone who uses the language in the 21st century understands that the dictionary guardians do not create the words or the meanings. They merely bless and catalogue what people conceive. And nowadays, there are so many new places to hunt for neologisms, to wit YouTube, text messages, the blogosphere, various hoods in big cities, the indie film industry. You can't think about words without stumbling over new ones. New words find their way into usage, fresh meanings attach to old familiar words, old meanings fall away, and in these ways the English vocabulary is enriched, or degraded, depending, I suppose, on how old and crusty you are. Some of us play catch up as good old words become worn out or invested with new, sometimes mystifying meaning. Some of us say, yuck, to hell with it. Communication suffers now and then, naturally, but English is a really unique and amazing language that has unbelievable powers of survival. Gnarly to beat the band.